Concern crept in as Hill-Murray held a slim one-goal lead against Stillwater late into the second period of Friday’s section championship.
A year ago, Stillwater shocked the Pioneers in the finals and earned its first trip to the boys’ hockey state tournament. As Friday’s game wore on, the Ponies were gaining confidence.
Enter Tyler Nowak. His goal late in the second period turned the momentum and kept Hill-Murray in control. The Pioneers finished with a 4-0 victory for the Class 2A, Section 4 title and a 27th overall trip to the state tournament.
“That was a huge momentum-changer,” Pioneers forward Zach Mills said. “We kept pushing to do the right things and we remembered not to fall apart like last year.”
Mills added two goals in the third period to cement the victory, played before an announced capacity crowd of 3,273, second largest in the history of Aldrich Arena in Maplewood. Only the inaugural girls’ state tournament in 1995 drew more fans.
The top-seeded Pioneers (21-7) got the desired fast start. Defenseman Mikey Anderson converted on a power-play chance only 1 minute, 57 seconds in.
Stillwater tried to fight back in the second period, but Nowak made the lead 2-0. Goalie Josh Benson went low to block Nowak’s initial shot, but Nowak sent the rebound high over Benson’s shoulder.
“We had them on their heels a little bit so for them to get that one hurt a little bit,” Stillwater coach Matt Doman said. “But we were still confident. One shot and it’s a one-goal game.”
To that end, Hill-Murray hit the ice for the final period with renewed focus. Stillwater (19-9), which played into overtime in two previous playoff games, could not keep pace.
“We went after the third period like it was the start of the game,” Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner said.